Tuesday 4 November 2014

Why we need to decriminalise drugs.

Last weeks coverage of various MPs speaking out on outdated and robotic UK drug policy (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-29821698) led me to write a long Facebook comment. I've decided to adapt this piece into a short blog. Why? Because I have some time on my hands and I'm just about egotistical enough to think people will read my ill-informed thoughts.

What is it that policy-makers are scared of and what prevents them from following actual evidence with regards to UK drug policy? Knee-jerk, nonsensical tabloid reactions. Response like 'lock them up and throw away the key', 'throw them off a cliff', 'bring back hanging' are habitually spouted by those who can't be bothered to actually look beneath the surface of the problem. Do these responses actually solve anything, are they really addressing the cause, or just the symptoms?

(As a side-note, those expressing such sweeping opinions should really be more wary when using the word 'They' – 'they should be locked up', 'they should be thrown off a cliff'. Who are 'they'? If this is generally referring to 'drug users', chances are it's referring to a lot of family and friends too.)

It's obvious that a blanket illegality approach to drugs doesn't work. Drug use is increasing, not decreasing. The illicit 'naughtiness' of illegal substances make them even more desirable to youngsters. People are still buying and using drugs, and currently have to do so through illegal channels. Which is where the real violence and crime comes in: Domestic gangs that sell drugs in the UK and, even more so, their suppliers in places like Latin America – where drug cartels have incredible power and cause unbelievable pain and suffering to the local population. Their running battles with law enforcement just cause more violence and death.

This is a global problem, that needs to be tackled as such. The fact that drugs are currently illegal in the UK leads directly to these cartels receiving millions of dollars each year, making them even more powerful but also influential and pandered to by corrupt officials (a UN report in 2013 estimated the global illicit drug market to be worth $320 billion. That's three-hundred-and-twenty-BILLION dollars – see extra reading sources below). If you decriminalise and control domestic drug production and the UK market, you cut off funding into the horrifically violent international illegal market. The only way to stop this vicious cycle. The 'War on Drugs' has failed.

The arbitrary labelling of substances as 'legal' and 'illegal' in the UK right now is also absurd. Why are alcohol and cigarettes legal but marijuana and MDMA not? Are alcohol and tobacco less harmful, or do they actually kill millions of people a year (tobacco is estimated to cause 6 million deaths worldwide annually, likely to rise above 8 million by 2030, and alcohol contributes a further 2.5 million worldwide each year – see extra reading sources below). And it's not just long term damage. Imagine three parties: One where all attendees are on alcohol, another all on marijuana, another all on MDMA. Guess which gathering will have the most violent and dangerous guests by the end of the night?

Even the horror stories about young people suddenly dying from ecstasy use – a 'bad' pill cut with who knows what other additional substances. In a decriminalised environment, where drugs are officially tested and controlled you would greatly reduce these dangers . Decriminalising drugs may even reduce their use – removing the taboo attraction that interests a lot of rebellious young people in the first place. Would you decide to try crack cocaine just because it's no longer illegal?

Legalising also doesn't mean selling heroin in Tesco. It means allowing those already addicted to the drug the ability to avoid dangerous pushers and pimps and instead move into a safe environment where they can also receive help and treatment for their problem. Prescription drugs are legal, but this doesn't mean you can just randomly pick them up off the street.

There are definitely risks associated with decriminalisation, but even more definite is the fact that the current approach doesn't work. It is time to step back and sensibly appraise a serious problem, a sentiment echoed by a number of current MPs and a cause for hope that rationality not fear will dictate future policy.

Sources/extra reading:
The drug problem in the Americas 2013 report - http://www.cicad.oas.org/drogas/elinforme/informeDrogas2013/laEconomicaNarcotrafico_ENG.pdf
Ash smoking statistics 2013 report - http://ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_107.pdf
Alcohol related deaths 2014 report - http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2012/sty-alcohol-releated-deaths.html
Original BBC article - http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-29821698


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